Bar-room bawl: London's pubs are enough to make you cry into your warm white wine

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The Independent Online
One of the most depressing invitations you can get is 'Let's meet for a drink' - because there's nowhere civilised you can go. The London pub has long since retreated from that model of democratic hospitality - 'all is light and brilliancy' - described by Dickens in Sketches by Boz. Even a century afterwards, the late Ian Nairn, Britain's most emotional architectural critic (who once described All Saints, Margaret Street, as 'an orgasm'), a man who combined the scholarship of Pevsner with the appetites of a navvy, could still go into raptures about pubs he found in theatreland. His descriptions of the plush banquettes, the bevelled glass, the rich warmth of polished copper and burnished gilding, factored to the nth degree by lubricating pints of metaphor-friendly stout, can bring tears of nostalgia to the eyes of those of my generation who do not share the general enthusiasm for laser karaoke.

Yet it's tempting to think that even in Nairn's day the decent London pub was on the retreat. Nairn's employers, the patrician old Architectural Press, found it necessary to build their own replica pub in the basement of the Queen Anne's Gate offices lest their impressionable staff be disappointed by entering the vileness of a real pub in Victoria.

The modern London pub is a soul-dismaying establishment, where it is not a life-threatening one. None of life's cultivated pleasures is to be found there. Carpets with swirling dayglo designs, video machines, high riff-raff quotient, satellite television, smoking, pork scratchings, hearty attempts at illiterate internationalism (one Chelsea pub offers turkey lasagne) or Heritage Trail home cooking. Worst of all, a pervasive sense of neglect and carelessness. Since most pubs belong to conglomerates whose mission is to enhance share value rather than serve you, and are managed by ignorant cynics and staffed by ex-cons or breezy itinerants, any sense that you are in a 'public house', with that phrase's pleasing associations of domesticity, is elusive.

If you want to know what pubs could be like, try The Peasant in Clerkenwell or The Enterprise in Chelsea. Taken out of the hands of rapacious brewers, these brave independents put dignity and quality and simple comfort where the conglomerates put squalor, indifference and eyes-too-close-together venality.

If anything, wine bars are worse than pubs. When they first appeared they were received with some excitement as tokens of continental sophistication in London, where wine consumption had hitherto been polarised between City types drinking in Leadenhall basements and bag ladies quaffing cream sherry on park benches. Although it is hard to believe today that once just to mouth the word 'Muscadet' was to claim membership of an exclusive club, few wine bars have advanced much on the view of the wine and food world established circa 1974. With the sole excepton of the banqueting facilities available on Thames river craft, the last places on earth where Russian Salad and that terrible Art Nouveau typeface called 'Davida' can still be found are the wine bars of London.

You could, of course, always try a hotel. The better ones certainly provide more hygienic environments than pubs or wine bars. And London has a fabulous range of architectural experiences to offer the adventurous. If you want to see the repulsive taste of a rich Texan dentist built on a monumental scale, try The Lanesborough, part the fronds and wave at a new friend. Interested in petrified modernism with your martini? The American bar at the Savoy is a must. Want to get an impression of a five-star Californian brothel? Try a glass of champagne in Blake's.

Yes, there are plenty of curiosities in hotel bars, but none have that feel of intimacy essential to the universal desire for a drink among civilised people, especially after a day of metropolitan horrors. It's astonishing in a city of this size that no one has sensed the opportunity of building a decent bar. Dark and comfortable with lots of zinc, leather and hardwood, there would be a discreet murmur of conversation and barmen, philosophical when called on to be so. You could go alone to read a paper for half an hour, or take a companion for quietly convivial conversation in supportive surroundings. Can I be the only person who finds this vision utterly beguiling?

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